On a lazy early evening, this word appeared in my reading, almost as in a vision: letabund. It was, I learned, used half a millennium ago, at least once, in Scotland. But it seemed to me immediately suitable for our own time, and it reminded me of one of my favourite artists.
If you look at it and try to guess its meaning and its morphology, you’re unlikely to see through it right away. The -abund – does that have to do with abundant? It does not; abundant comes from Latin ab ‘from’ and undo ‘wave, swell’, with the sense of ‘overflowing’. This is rather from the Latin suffix -bundus, which makes adjectives from verbs on the model of moribundus ‘dying; prone to death’ from morior ‘die’; this -bundus comes from an old root meaning ‘become’ or ‘grow’.
You may suspect that the let is not English let, and indeed we can let that go. If you sleep on it, you may dream of Italian letto ‘bed’. That comes from Latin lectus. Could this be lectabund? But these -bundus words are formed from verbs, and lectus ‘bed’ is a noun. There is another lectus, past participle of a verb, and that means ‘chosen’ (compare select and elect) or ‘read’ (compare lecture), but the present verb is lego, ‘I choose’ or ‘I read’, and so our word would be legabund, which puts a leg out of bounds.
So is it leto, then? You might reasonably expect that, but you would not be glad when you found out that leto means ‘I slay’, and so letabund would be ‘slaying’ or ‘inclined to kill’. No, let it not be so lethal; let us pour lethe upon the idea. We have had far more than enough death. Surely there is something missing?
There is, as an encyclopedia – or an encyclopædia – might tell you. As sometimes happens in English, the Latin letter æ, a digraph of a and e, has been rendered as just e. And what is læto? As a transitive verb, it means ‘I gladden’ and ‘I cause to rejoice’, but the passive form of the verb – lætor – translated as ‘I rejoice’. And so letabund means, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, ‘full of joy’.
Which is how I came to think of Jenny Holzer, one of my favourite artists. She is known for texts displayed in various ways in public places. Her second series, “Survival” (1983–85), contains many sharp and even cynical lines, such as “The future is stupid,” “You are trapped on the earth so you will explode,” and “You are so complex that you don’t always respond to danger.” But it also has the inscrutable positivity of “Turn soft and lovely any time you have a chance,” the serendipity of “You live the surprise results of old plans,” and the line that today’s word led me to:
“In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.”